In two previous posts on the topic of miracles we learned three important points which are worth reiterating here:
First, a miracle can be defined as a religiously significant event which is caused by God and exceeds the productive powers of nature.
Second, the productive powers of nature can be understood using various theories of natural laws: they can be reduced to law-like generalizations about what repeatedly occurs in nature, expressed in terms of necessary truths about what must happen under natural conditions, or be viewed as descriptions of what physical objects are disposed to produce under certain circumstances. Now, rather than defend a particular understanding of the laws of nature in this post, I will settle for a rather uncontroversial definition proposed by J.L. Mackie (1982): the laws of nature “describe the ways in which the world – including, of course, human beings – works when left to itself, when not interfered with.”
Third, we learned that David Hume (1748) is very skeptical about the possibility of believing in a miracle. He argued that it is never rational to believe in a miracle because the evidence for the laws of nature is always stronger than the evidence for a miraculous exception to those laws. At the very least, Hume assumed the evidence for one counts as evidence against the other. [It is worth noting that Mackie agrees with Hume on this point]
But was Hume correct in his assumption that the evidence for the laws of nature is evidence against a miracle? Richard Otte (1996) disagrees, and the purpose of today’s post is to examine why he does so.
RICHARD OTTE ON MIRACLES
Otte claims that the laws of nature tell us how nature works when left to its own devices, when no outside factors like God are acting to exceed its powers. This means that belief in a naturally occurring exception to the laws of nature flies in the face of all the observational evidence that those laws hold true. However, Otte points out that those laws do not tell us how nature must work when outside factors are interfering. Why is this point important? Because that is exactly what is happening when a miracle occurs! A miracle (by definition) only occurs when nature has not been left to itself, when its powers have been exceeded by God. Therefore, evidence for the laws of nature is not evidence against how nature would work if a being like God decided to act in such a way. As Otte (1996) himself puts it, “Evidence for a law of nature is evidence about how the world works when God does not intervene, but a miracle is what happens when God does intervene. Since evidence for a law of nature is not evidence about how the world works when God does intervene, it is not evidence against a miracle occurring” (p.155).
Richard Otte (1996) uses an everyday example from house plumbing to illustrate the fallacy of counting evidence for the laws of nature against belief in miracles. He writes as follows:
“My experience is that when a plumber doesn’t interfere with my plumbing, whenever I turn on the faucet water comes out. I might justifiably conclude that whenever I turn on the faucet and a plumber doesn’t interfere, water will come out. But it would be a mistake to conclude that when a plumber interferes with my plumbing, water will come out when I turn on the faucet. It is very possible that because of the plumber’s interference, when I turn on the faucet water won’t come out. How my plumbing behaves when the plumber does not interfere with my plumbing does not determine what I should believe about how my plumbing behaves when the plumber does interfere. If Mackie’s reasoning were correct it would be irrational to believe someone who claimed the plumber turned off the water to their home and water didn’t come out of the faucet” (pp.154-155).
Otte’s conclusion is important to the rationality of belief in miracles because it is often claimed that the laws of nature make belief in miracles so antecedently improbable than no amount of historical evidence could ever counterbalance it. But if Otte is correct, then evidence for these laws has no direct bearing on the antecedent probability of a miracle. It only has indirect bearing insofar as we have evidence to think that God would not act to exceed the powers of nature. Such evidence can take the form of arguments against the existence of God or against his having reasons to cause a miracle on some (or any) particular occasion.
 J.L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982, pp. 19-20.
 David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. 2nd Edition. Ed. Eric Steinberg (Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993), pp.72-90.
 Richard Otte, “Mackie’s Treatment of Miracles.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 39:151-158 (June 1996).
 Otte admits that “it is possible that there be evidence that is relevant both to how the world behaves when God intervenes and when God does not intervene” (p.158). But evidence for the laws of nature does not appear to be like this.
 Otte borrowed this example from Barbara Scholz.